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Ben Nicholson (1894 − 1982)

Venice Biennale participation

Group show
1934 1954
Other exhibitions
1948 1964 1968 1972

Second only to Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson was the British Council's chief export in the 1940s and 50s; he featured in forty of its exhibitions between 1947 and 1960. What Jeremy Lewison called 'the English accent of Nicholson's international language' proved an ideal means of communicating with cold war Europe, and Nicholson's overseas reputation and sales benefited accordingly. The 1954 Biennale - 'the BN-ale', as Nicholson enjoyed calling it, though it was shared with Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud - is a case study in this symbiotic relationship.

Under the stewardship of the British Council's Fine Arts Advisory Committee (FAAC), the Pavilion had already established itself as one of the most successful of the Biennale. This was largely thanks to the post-war decision to concentrate on two or three artists at a time, and to accompany them with a specially-produced catalogue; one that, by 1954, other countries had begun to follow.  These handsomely-designed catalogues listed works and provided an introductory essay on the exhibitors by a leading British art critic. Notable amongst these was Herbert Read, a close friend of Nicholson's, and regular champion of his on the Selection Committee.

Read had also written the introduction for Unit One (1934), a book of statements by the eleven painters, sculptors and designers Paul Nash had gathered in 1933 around the principle of 'structural purpose' in art. Members such as Moore, Edward Wadsworth and Barbara Hepworth, whom he had divorced in 1951, all preceded Nicholson with Biennale nominations. When his arrived, the original line-up included Gwen John, but Nicholson persuaded Read to argue for sticking to living artists. He was less successful with his outrage at the young Bacon being given the main room in the Pavilion however, although Nicholson still got more wall space, as Lewinson points out. Behind the scenes, Lilian Somerville, the BC's Director of Arts, wrote that

we all felt strongly at the meeting that Ben's work would not be as good as the first impression in the Pavilion, and Bacon was chosen particularly for making a strong impression of something unexpected and different.

Diplomatically, Read's letters to Nicholson took the more soothing line that the younger painter would benefit more from the 'cruel light' of the skylit main room; whilst, presumably, Nicholson's more refined work held its own in the side galleries. Though he was offered the alternative of the main room in 1956, Nicholson felt the 1954 preparations had gone too far to be aborted, and settled for what Margaret Garlake called 'unprecedented control' over what he hung, rather than where he hung it.

Though the Council were apparently frustrated by Nicholson's insistence on focussing on his recent work (almost half the work came from the previous year), the show was still representative of a career that, according to Sophie Bowness, brought 'a very valuable internationalist outlook' to British art. His signature white reliefs – his 'major contribution to twentieth-century English and European modernism', she continues – were well represented. The first of these had arrived in 1934, as Unit One was in its first flush, and, according to Norbert Lynton,

as he incised lines into one of his paint-over-gesso surfaces, a piece of the gesso fell out, tempting him to explore the possibility of having layers of real space, or shallow relief, in a painting.

He recorded the birth of Simon, Rachel and Sarah, his triplets with Hepworth, in the three-part 1934, October 2 (white relief – triplets); an interesting element of representation, or what Francis Bacon called 'reporting', in a career increasingly devoted to abstraction. Something about the physicality involved in making and viewing them took Nicholson back to his own upbringing by Sir William Nicholson, a painter, and Mabel, a painter-turned-housewife. Neither enjoyed discussing theory; his mother in particular, 'really the most intelligent' in the family, he thought,

after a lot of art-talk from our visitors […] always said that it made her want to go downstairs and scrfub the kitchen table.

'She was dead-right about scrubbing that table', Ben remembered, and used 'the top of an old kitchen table' as a palette from the 1930s to the 1950s. 'Maybe kitchen tables were part of Ben's genetic make-up', David Lewis wondered; certainly they reminded him of the greater pleasures of doing something rather than talking about it. Nevertheless, he became a public apologist for abstract art, later writing 'although I made my first 'abstract' painting in 1923 it wasn't until 1933 that I was able to establish this development'.

This was the year he joined the continental collective Abstraction-Création; opportunities to exhibit and contacts all over Europe flourished, and an important one of these was Piet Mondrian, with whom Nicholson became very close. This fcontinental success - which had evaporated during six years of wartime isolation, and made the Biennale essential for re-building his reputation abroad - served him badly at home. As Lewinson reflects,

Where the humanism of Moore or the romanticism of [Graham] Sutherland and [John] Piper were welcomed in a period of austerity and continued rationing, the apparently cerebral abstraction of Nicholson was rejected.

In 1941, however, he had made the ambitious claim

liberation of form and colour is closely linked with all the other liberations one hears about. I think it ought, perhaps, to come into one of our lists of war-aims.

The caricature of the beret-wearing son of a Knight, as far 'divorced from life' as detractors judged his art, may be tempting, but Nicholson devoutly believed abstraction wasn't just for the ivory tower of art theory. Like George Orwell, his Eton-educated contemporary, he seems to have held the principle Bernard Crick paraphrased as 'no meaningful idea [is] too difficult to be explained in simple terms to ordinary people.' To this end, he drew analogies from sport, another love: 

the problems dealt with in 'abstract' art are related to the interplay of forces, [so] any solution reached has a bearing on all interplay between forces: it is related to Arsenal v. Tottenham Hotspur quite as much as the stars in their courses.

These were the advantages for the audience; for the artist, Nicholson argued 'one of the abstract artist's powers is the remarkable one of creating space, 'not 'literary' space but actual space', explaining himself in relation to 1932 (Au Chat Botté), an abstract view through a shop window. He described it in terms of 'planes'; the first was the window-painted shop sign, the second the reflections on the windowpane, and the third the objects on the shop table.

These three planes and all their subsidiary planes were interchangeable so that you could not tell which was real and which unreal, what was reflected and what was unreflected, and this created, as I see now, some kind of space or imaginative
world in which one could live.

This appeared in the 'shop window' of the Biennale, as part of a show that won him the 350,000 lire (about ₤250) Ulisse Prize, and boosted his sales considerably. Though he had hoped to win one of the more major prizes, this was a huge achievement considering the Biennale theme of Surrealism, the lack of a British representative on the judging panel, and the presence of Max Ernst, Joan Miro and Jean Arp.

Though Lilian Somerville confided to a colleague that she'd 'intended doing a 'deliberate mistake' … so that [he] can be happy having that altered and, I hope, leave the rest alone!', Nicholson  concluded

Enthusiasm among the Italians & the French especially was terrific (much more than I'd ever expected) & Lilian Somerville had hung & presented the show so well (lovely rooms, perfect colour, & miraculous Venetian light) that I was able scarcely to alter one single thing.

Tom Overton, 2009.

Sophie Bowness, 'Nicholson, Benjamin Lauder (1894–1982)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: OUP, 2004), Online edition, accessed 17th November 2008.

Sarah Jane Checkland, Ben Nicholson: The Vicious Circles of His Life and Art (London: John Murray, 2000).

Bernard Crick, 'Blair, Eric Arthur [George Orwell] (1903–1950)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: OUP, 2004), Online edition, accessed 15th August 2008.

Patrick Elliott, 'Obituaries: Felicitas Vogler', The Independent, 10th October 2006.

Peter Khoroche, Ben Nicholson: Drawings and Painted Reliefs (Aldershot: Lund Humphries, 2008).

David Lewis, 'Scratching the Surface', Tate ETC, No.13, Summer 2008.

Jeremy Lewinson, Ben Nicholson [exh. cat.] (London: Tate, 1993).
Norbert Lynton, Ben Nicholson (London: Phaidon, 1993).

Bryan Robertson, 'Ben Nicholson', Art News and Review, 9th July 1955.

Herbert Read, 'Ben Nicholson', in The British Pavilion: Exhibition of works by Nicholson, Bacon, Freud [exh. cat.] (London: British Council, 1954).

Maurice de Sausmarez, ed., Ben Nicholson: A Studio International Special (London: Studio International, 1969).

Chris Stephens, ed., A Continuous Line: Ben Nicholson in England (London: Tate, 2008).


Ben Nicholson Au Chat Botte (Puss in Boots) painting (1932) oil and pencil on canvas, 92.3

Ben Nicholson Au Chat Botte (Puss in Boots) painting (1932) oil and pencil on canvas, 92.3

  • Victor Pasmore and Ben Nicholson
  • Ben Nicholson, 1949. December 5 (poisonous yellow) (1949) oil on pencil on canvas, 124.4 x
  • Barbara Hepworth with Ben Nicholson at Happisburgh
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